Don't Fear the Reaper

Like the character Timothy in Neil's Garden, an exceptionally well-acted, well-directed world premiere now at Area Stage on Miami Beach, I am not reasonable about death. Just the mention of it causes me to knock on wood. Death is not to be thought about now, but rather something to be put out of mind for as long as possible, until it can be avoided no longer. Geoffrey Hassman's new comedy makes another case entirely. What about exercising responsible control over our own demise with the same care we afford life?

Playwright Hassman wastes no time in getting to the subject of death. Within moments of the play's opening, Neil (Bill Hindman), suffering from a terminal illness Hassman fails to name, chastises Timothy (Walter Zukovski), his best friend, former lover, and ex-business partner, for arriving late on the evening Neil plans --urning a noun into an action verb -- to "euthanize" himself. Don't except a heavy-handed editorial on mercy killing, however. Hassman's too clever a dramatist to bog down his script with issue-laden pros and cons. Instead, one man's imminent euthanasia throws a 40-year relationship into bas-relief. Neil and Timothy rake through their querulous, entangled, and loving attachment to each other during the course of two acts, revealing the playwright's true purpose -- to tackle death by humorously celebrating a shared life.

Set in an uptown Manhattan apartment (beautifully designed by Michael Thomas Essad and sumptuously decorated by Byron Byrd), with French doors overlooking Neil's carefully tended garden, the action pivots on a simple premise: Intending to die in the same tasteful manner in which he's conducted his life, interior designer Neil, confined to a wheelchair, invites Timothy to dine with him on Neil's last night alive, to have his friend leave before Neil drinks a suicide cocktail, and have him return the next morning to discover the body. But Timothy, never adept at following instructions, cannot seem to go along with his host's plans.

Director John Rodaz leavens the script's dips into melodrama and its relentless number of puns about death with broad physical comedy (Timothy twirling Neil around in his wheelchair in search of an outlet for an electric blanket; the two men wrestling over tranquilizers) and witty visual jokes (leopard-skin upholstery on Neil's chair; a Victoria's Secret shopping bag for carrying home food). But Rodaz's strength lies in his understanding of the alternately tender and frustrating bond between the characters. Reportedly, the script called for younger men than those cast here. The director sensed, however, that older actors would draw from a richer source of experience to play out a long-term duet, and Rodaz elicits consummate performances from Hindman and Zukovski, among the best I've seen all year.

Hindman expresses both sides of Neil's nature with equal conviction: the fastidious, hypercritical Neil, ever in command, a man who has planned his own death down to the final music he'll listen to and the dinner jacket he'll wear; and the nurturer who delights in his friend's excesses and who surveys his lovely garden with pride and affection. Most powerfully, the actor illuminates what it might be like for a person so wracked with pain and so numb from waiting for his impending end that, in Neil's words, he begins to "fear life more than death" and, thus, chooses death.

In contrast to the wheelchair-bound Hindman, the lanky Zukovski, with his malleable face and large expressive hands, zigzags about the stage, a drama queen mediating the fine line between neurosis and joie de vivre. So resolutely straight in other roles I've seen him play, Zukovski's portrayal of the anxiety-ridden, pill-dependent, jocular Timothy proves revelatory. Where Neil controls his world by organizing everything, selfish and childish Timothy stems the tide of chaos with biting wit. Zukovski delivers his character's hilariously facetious lines with droll timing, never letting us forget that the vulnerable Timothy relies upon his humor to survive.

Two notes sound slightly off-key in the comedy: Hassman uses the music of John Lennon, somewhat incongruous given Neil and Timothy's other tastes; and an ambiguous ending that borders on being contrived. Yet the connection forged between Hindman and Zukovski overrides such considerations. In the close quarters of Area Stage, I wasn't sitting in a theater audience watching a play -- I was pressed up against a window, peering into someone's home, watching a true-life relationship unfold. See this, one of the best productions of the season.

Stage Notes
Among the many arts groups still struggling to recover from the damage caused by Hurricane Andrew, the fifteen-year-old Florida Shakespeare Festival (FSF) has to be one of the most tenacious. After Andrew blew away the roof on Coral Gables's Minorca Playhouse (site of the FSF), long-time festival boss Gail Deschamps passed the baton to new artistic director Rose McVeigh and managing director Ellen Beck, the team who managed to mount a five-production season in 1993-94 on a borrowed stage: Teatro Avante's El Carrusel Theatre, also in the Gables. McVeigh and Beck hoped to present a 1994-95 season in the Danielson Gallery at the Biltmore Hotel, but a deal to use the space fell through. Undaunted, the pair jumped at another spot in the Biltmore, signing a lease this past February. McVeigh enthusiastically reports, "It's a 3000-foot black-box space with 16-foot ceilings, adjoining a courtyard we're making into an enclosed outdoor arena for Shakespeare productions. We're shooting for the theater to be ready by October."

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